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Smartphones meet sutras at ancient monastery

  • Source : China Daily Author : Time : 06/05/2019 Editor : Wang Chenyan

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    A novice enters Tashihunpo, the residential monastery for the Panchen Lama, in Shigatse, Tibet autonomous region. [Photo by Zhu Xingxin/China Daily]


    One of China's leading Buddhist academies is using new technology to continue its age-old mission.


    Editor's note: This is the seventh story in a series about the Tibet autonomous region, focusing on the area's history, poverty alleviation measures and the cultural and business sectors.


    Dawa cast a stern look at some young monks at Tashihunpo Monastery in the Tibet autonomous region, who were sitting on the stairs playing with their mobile phones.


    The senior lama continued walking toward the Tsogchen Hall, aka the Great Chanting Hall, a legendary place for Tibetan Buddhists, where a scripture recital was due to begin.


    Dawa's silent message saw the young, scarlet-robed lamas quickly put on their yellow hats, shaped like a rooster's comb, and rush to the hall. It is one of the oldest buildings in the monastery, one of the religion's leading academies, which was erected by the first Dalai Lama in 1447.


    "I am letting them off. After all, it's break time," said the 39-year-old follower of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, as he watched the young monks take off their shoes and prepare for the scripture session.


    "They would be punished if they were caught using their phones in the hall, where they must learn about Tibetan Buddhism in the most traditional way. This has been preserved in Tashihunpo for hundreds of years."


    Dawa had his first glimpse of the recital, which takes place daily, when he arrived at the monastery at age 10.


    Tashihunpo straddles the Niseri Mountain in Tibet's Shigatse city; the golden-roofed temples sit near the top, while the four dratsangs (schools) occupy the middle and the lamas' quarters lie at the foot.


    The center also provides rooms for the Panchen Lama, one of the most important figures in the Gelug sect, who visits regularly.


    The visual impact of the thick windows and door frames, black against the scarlet and white walls, the chimes of bells hanging from the roofs of the temples and the incense smoke lingering in the air quickly draw outsiders into the world of Tibetan Buddhism.


    Living Buddhas  


    Most Tibetans follow the religion, and the region is home to 1,782 monasteries and more than 46,000 lamas and nuns.

     There are 358 Living Buddhas, monks believed to be the reincarnations of eminent lamas, according to the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing.


    Three of the monastery's schools specialize in Exoteric Buddhism, the belief that the ultimate state of Buddhahood can be divined through teachings and scripture. According to Tashihunpo tradition, the students spend 18 years mastering the five theories of Tibetan Buddhism and learning to win doctrinal debates.


    The other school offers lessons on Esoteric Buddhism, which says the ultimate state is unknowable and cannot be expressed. The courses take up to five years to complete.



    Young lamas at Tashihunpo gather during a break.


    "Currently, there are more than 750 students, including six Living Buddhas, from all over China at the monastery. We'd like to see the number reach 1,000," said Salung Phunlha, director of the monastery's administrative commission.


    In 2005, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, the 11th Panchen Lama, was made the commission's honorable director. The appointment came 20 years after he was named as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama at age 5 and an enthronement ceremony was held in Tashihunpo.


    "The 11th Panchen Lama regularly stays at the monastery and holds religious ceremonies in the courtyard in front of the Tsogchen Hall," Dawa said, pointing to the dignitary's golden chair. "The square is packed with followers every time he holds a ceremony."


    New channels  


    Salung Phunlha said: "The 11th Panchen Lama has said repeatedly that lamas need to spread Tibetan Buddhism via new channels to adapt to the new requirements and development of society. So, besides scripture, our students study culture and science, and learn English."


    The 11th Panchen Lama surprised many people when he delivered a speech in English at the opening ceremony of the Second World Buddhist Forum in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, in 2009.


    "By mastering different languages, we can ensure that our message won't get lost in translation," Salung Phunlha said.


    Social media  


    Ngawang Namdrol, the third Living Buddha Khyungpo, has studied at Tashihunpo since he was 12. The 27-year-old is still learning the five theories of Tibetan Buddhism via a strict study routine from 5:30 am to 9 pm every day.


    Despite that, he manages to find time to regularly update his social media accounts.


    "I am one of the first Living Buddhas in China to have social media accounts," he said, sitting in his chair surrounded by small Buddha statues and thangka, traditional paintings. "The younger lamas all know new media pretty well, which is something we must use as society develops. I didn't open my Weibo account to become famous, but to pass on Tibetan Buddhism's positive energy to more people."


    In 2010, he launched the official account of Living Buddha Khyungpo on Sina Weibo, China's Twitterlike platform, and it now has more than 270,000 followers. In addition to regularly posting Tibetan Buddhist content to encourage people to be kind to each other and help them better handle pressure, he posts nonreligious items, such as selfies, photos featuring the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the regional capital, or beautiful scenery he has captured on his smartphone.


    "Some young lamas also post about their everyday lives in monasteries, which helps people learn about their real lifestyles," he said.


    Khyungpo said people should be alert to fake Living Buddhas, conmen who are after money and sometimes even lure followers into performing sexual acts.


    "Those fake Living Buddhas have bad intentions. Their behavior has severely damaged the image of Tibetan Buddhism," he said, adding that people should carefully check the masters they intend to follow, such as establishing which monastery they come from and their teachers' names.


    In January 2016, the government created an online database of legitimate Living Buddhas to help followers distinguish between real monks and fakes. The database contains information about 870 Living Buddhas nationwide, and more will be added as their status is confirmed.


    The database was devised after an incident in 2015 in which a man who called himself Baima Aose sought to hold a Living Buddha enthronement ceremony for an actor. He was forced to issue an apology after it was revealed that he had never been certified as a Living Buddha.


    Khyungpo said: "As a Living Buddha, I need to focus on improving myself so I can better influence others. I don't mean to convert people to Tibetan Buddhism, but to show how to be a good person."


    As many people are showing an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, more knowledgeable masters and Living Buddhas are required to provide accurate guidance, he added.


    "I've noticed that some interpretations in books are inaccurate. Many people are learning Tibetan so they can understand Tibetan Buddhism. With better language skills, I could learn more about Buddhism and the world," said Khyungpo, who wants to study English.


    Personal choice  


    Young apprentices don't automatically become lamas when they arrive at the monastery. Instead, they study more than 100 pages of scripture, which may take one to two years.


    During that time, they learn to respect their masters and other people, and more important, they can take time to decide if they truly wish to dedicate their lives to Tibetan Buddhism, Khyungpo added.


    He said the system fully respects personal choice and ensures that those who choose to stay can commit to the tough journey ahead once they are allocated to one of the four schools.


    The headmaster of the schools bears the Tibetan title Gexi, meaning "Master of Knowledge". To obtain the title, Gelug lamas, including Living Buddhas, must pass a series of exams and debates after completing their studies of the five theories.


    Although a heated debate, where the challengers clap their hands while raising questions about theory, may look entertaining, it's an extremely serious business. Hesitation or a slow response means a lama will lose the debate.


    Gexi Lharangba - equivalent to a doctorate - is the highest of the four Gexi levels. It is awarded in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa after the applicants face challenges from top lamas who rapidly fire tough questions at them.


    "The exams for Gexi Lharangba are extremely difficult, so applicants must be very knowledgeable about Tibetan Buddhism," said Lozangpal Trinleychusang, deputy director of the exam committee.


    Thanks to the significant improvement in Tibet's transportation infrastructure, a growing number of lamas from remote monasteries are taking the exams, he added. At the most recent exams, the youngest applicant was 30, while the oldest was 51.


    Almost every year, lamas from Tashihunpo successfully gain the title. A monk named Lobsang sat the six-day written theory exams for the Gexi Lharangba title in July. Last month, he and 11 other lamas passed the debating exam and were accredited as Gexi Lharangba.


    "There aren't many hairs left after more than 30 years of study," the 44-year-old laughed, pointing to his head. "For a lama, studying Tibetan Buddhism is a lifelong journey."


    Moving forward  


    Dawa stood outside the Tsogchen Hall courtyard and looked down at a construction site at the foot of the mountain.


    "When it is completed, that building will be a modern academy for Tibetan Buddhism run by the monastery as a branch of the Tibet Buddhist College. It will provide regular classes for lamas in Shigatse so they can be educated by Tashihunpo's top masters," he said.


    "Although the teaching methods and equipment will be modern at the new academy, the education provided at the monastery must stick to tradition," he added, as the sound of lamas' chanting scriptures lingered in the air and the sunset illuminated the golden roofs of the temples - something that hasn't changed for centuries.

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